YEREVAN – Azerbaijan’s war for Nagorno-Karabakh, originally intended as a quick and easy battle, has dragged long beyond its expected time frame, cost and casualties, according to two foreign military attaches.
“All indications suggest that the original plan of attack was based on a quick round of fighting for an estimated three-to-five days after an overwhelming attack to push back the Karabakh Armenian forces,” said a Western military officer stationed in the region.
The offensive, which was launched on September 27, has now entered its second month with Russian President Vladimir Putin citing figures of more than 5,000 people killed on either side.
That desired short time frame was confirmed by a European military official based in Moscow.
Azerbaijan’s campaign, for which over 1,000 Syrian mercenaries were recruited by Turkey to serve as shock troops, was based on the premise that the “Karabakh forces were vulnerable,” the European official said.
But Baku, he said, “greatly underestimated the capacity” of the defenders, who increasingly enjoy the topographical advantage of the mountains now that the initial race along flat adjacent terrain has ended.
Both military observers spoke to Asia Times on condition of anonymity.
Plans gone awry
Azerbaijan’s planned rapid offensive, timed to coincide with the last month of the US presidential race, had hoped to be completed before any international reaction could be mobilized. Baku would then pursue an immediate ceasefire to consolidate its territorial gains, according to sources.
The September 27 launch of the Azerbaijani offensive came at a time when the region was already at war and struggling to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, which has only exacerbated the potential for a humanitarian catastrophe now looming across the region.
Russia’s response has been uncharacteristically passive, giving credence to the perception of prior knowledge or even complicity based on the more strategic context of closer relations between the Russian and Turkish presidents over already strained and tense relations between the Russian and Armenian leaders.
While some analysts have argued that Russia was likely caught off guard by the Azerbaijani offensive, there is a general consensus that Moscow sees the war as an opportunity to weaken an Armenian government that was resented since it first came to power in the non-violent democratic “Velvet Revolution” of 2018.
Yet even the benefits of Russia’s passivity and superior weaponry from Israel have been undermined by an unexpected degree of resistance by the well-entrenched Karabakh defenders and Armenia’s national mobilization.
In recent days, Azerbaijan notably pivoted its war effort toward the highly-symbolic city of Shushi, known to Azerbaijanis as Shusha, which is steeped in history for both sides. But that could be a costly gambit as it will present a bloody uphill battle and detract from the logical military choice of cutting Karabakh off from Armenia via the Lachin corridor.
Determined to present win and gains to the Azerbaijani public, Baku this week requested a postponement of a planned meeting in Geneva with the OSCE Minsk Group, moving it instead to October 30, with separate meetings of the Azerbaijani and Armenian foreign ministers with the mediators.
Prisoner of rhetoric
As a prisoner of his own rhetoric, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev now stands at a point where his threatening words of war and long-promised military victory over Karabakh is being tested.
But by vowing that his forces would drive Armenians “out of our lands,” Aliyev has staked his standing on an elusive goal. His discourse, including his statement that the “criminal regime in Armenia is the biggest threat to our region,” has done little to win Western understanding or sympathy for his position.
The destruction of tanks, artillery and weapons systems of the Azerbaijani forces has not been as proportionally severe as the losses incurred on the Karabakh side. Yet the level of Azerbaijani censorship suggests that even limited losses are not taken lightly.
While the Armenian side has announced more than 1,000 fatalities among its forces, the scale of military casualties remains a closely guarded secret for Azerbaijan, which has also sought to quash the now widely accepted notion that it deployed Syrian mercenaries.
Such sweeping censorship may present a problem for Azerbaijan, however, as the lack of any concrete information on casualties tends to only foster misinformation, while further eroding any pubic trust or confidence in official reports. That, in turn, could undermine the Azerbaijani government’s credibility even in cases where it reports truthful or accurate information.
A second threat, less urgent but equally significant, is that even with a complete defeat of Nagorno-Karabakh and the routing of its Armenian population, initial popularity and exuberance within Azerbaijani society may rapidly erode and turn out to be less lasting than the ruling elite hopes given the high costs of the war in terms of both reconstruction and in the wake of disclosing the sacrifice of military casualties.
Such intensity can quickly turn against Aliyev, whose hereditary rule critics say is based more on corruption and patronage, with no real legitimacy from free and fair elections.
The Azerbaijani government, therefore, may undermine its stability in the face of victory and could trigger new accusations that the war should and could have been fought and won years earlier.
With the precedent of a past military coup in the 1990s, the danger of a possible attempt by disgruntled elements of the armed forces to overthrow the government can not be dismissed, particularly in light of the ruling dynasty’s accumulation of wealth over the past decade.
Based on these inherent vulnerabilities, a third, if somewhat unlikely, threat comes from the isolation of Azerbaijan should Turkey withdraw its direct military support.
As unprecedented as Turkish military support for Azerbaijani in the field has been, it may become neither sustainable for Turkey nor acceptable for Russia in the coming months.
This is a scenario the Azerbaijani leadership seems both unable to foresee and unwilling to accept, thereby magnifying the impact if and when Turkey retreats from its exposed position and Russia reasserts its power and influence.
Should Turkey establish a permanent military base or retake its former role as Azerbaijan’s primary military patron, sustained direct Turkish military engagement will be costly in the face of competing military commitments in Syria and Libya and grand ambitions elsewhere.
As Ankara is already largely overextended in Azerbaijan, it is also exposed as Moscow will not easily accept any such Turkish presence over the long term in a region that Russia regards as a crucial element in its own sphere of influence or near abroad.
Yet Aliev’s first, most pressing threat comes from within, as dangerously high expectations among his populace for a complete, decisive and lasting military victory seem to suggest an impractical, if not impossible, threshold.
Under such pressure, exacerbated by years of a pronounced domestic feeling of humiliation and loss over Karabakh, any “victory” short of the full and complete capture of the territory would be seen as a defeat.